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The Pay Raise Game

Tuesday, November 7, 1989; Page A24


THE PRESIDENT and congressional leaders continue to play a game of hot potato with what ought to be the simple question of who pays Congress: the public through the Treasury or the interest groups? Right now about a seventh of congressional pay is from the interest groups, in the form of honoraria. Everyone in authority belatedly agrees that these handouts disguised as speaking fees should be banned.

As a practical matter a ban requires a compensating pay raise, which we think the job deserves and Congress should vote itself. The raise would have the added virtue of freeing up judicial and executive branch salaries, which are also too low and which Congress has held hostage. Understanding all this, and despite the painful memory of the pay debacle with which this Congress began, a bipartisan House task force has provisionally recommended a raise for all three branches as part of a fairly strong congressional ethics bill that would put new limits on gifts and free travel as well as phase out honoraria. This is almost identical to a pay-and-ethics bill the president requested of Congress earlier this year. So what happens?

Speaker Tom Foley and House minority leader Bob Michel go to both the Senate and White House for support. From the Senate, which likes honoraria more than the House (senators tend to be better known and find it easier to earn the maximum amounts), Messrs. Foley and Michel want a promise to go second if the House goes first, not to grandstand and desert the House as the Senate has done before. From the president they want clout and cover in the form of strong expressions of support.

From the White House what they get instead is an expression of sanitized support from the president's spokesman: "We'll be supportive if the Congress produces any reasonable proposal." From the markedly unenthusiastic Senate they have yet to get any clear expression. If the president really wants the pay raises and government cleanup that he claims to, if George Mitchell and Bob Dole are more than just accommodators of the Senate club, there will likely be the needed ethics bill and raises this year. These three are the people on whom this difficult but important issue currently most depends.

© Copyright 1989 The Washington Post

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